A new play has made its home, nestled in New York's Lower East Side. Joshua Conkel's MilkMilkLemonade performing at Under St. Marks through September 26th, is an absurdist jaunt through the lives of Emory (Andy Phelan), a helplessly effeminate boy, his best friend Linda the Chicken (Jennifer Harder), and their indelible dreams of escaping Nanna's chicken farm to Mall Town, USA. in order to audition for Reach for the Stars, a reality talent competition and break free from the mundane normative existence of rural life.
The only thing that stands in their way is Nanna (Michael Cyril Creighton), a cancer-ridden, bible-beating, chain-smoking, grandmother, and her determination to process all the chickens on her farm on "Processing day." In an effort to stymie Emory's increasingly problematic effeminacy, Nanna employs the aid of Elliot (Jess Barbagallo), the rough and tumble anarchist-bent trouble child from next door with an evil parasitic twin living in his thigh, which compels him to behave badly.
All of this is narrated by the ever uncomfortable "Lady in the Leotard" (Nikole Beckwith) who conveniently translates Linda's unintelligable clucks and voices Elliot's demonic Jiminy cricket of a fetus-in-fetu.
As you can tell, realism wouldn't touch this play with a ten foot pole, and director Isaac Butler revels in the naughty children's play aesthetic which permeates the production. In many ways watching MilkMilkLemonade reminds one of a slightly more political/queer-theoried Animaniacs with the pop-up book set designed by Jason Simms and campy dance montages (Meredith Steinberg). Cronkel's play is funny, dare I say, very funny. But as humorous and witty as the play is, it wasn't particularly inventive thematically.
While it's a fair bet to say that there are very few if any plays which feature a giant chicken delivering stand up routines, MilkMilkLemonade's core narrative arc deals with Emory's struggle with gender normative society as a fledgling fey and his abusive relationship with closet case Elliot, who forces Emory in engaging in child sex play. While the absurdist bent offers a refreshing lift to the play, the core narrative seems tired.
If I had a dollar for every gay-themed play, movie, and tv show about a gay teen struggling against the heteronormative patriarchy embodied in his abusive closeted butch lover who's really sweet and tender inside but is compelled to react violently because of unseen social forces... I wouldn't be living in the 77 sq. foot space that passes as my bedroom, for one thing.
Thankfully, Butler's choice to cross-cast many of the roles in the play (Nanna and Elliot), a new layer of gendered commentary is superimposed on the production. While not a wholly original move, as cross-casting has been a well used theatrical convention dating back to feminist and queer plays through the 60s and 70s, it does complicate the way the audience is asked to interpret Emory and Elliot's relationship. Barbagallo truly shines as Elliot, donning his erratic restless masculinity effortlessly. In fact, several times during the production I had to remind myself that Elliot was being played by a female actor.
This performative dissonance immediately causes us to acknowledge the artificiality of Emory and Elliot's relationship since it emphasizes the role of the actors as primary movers propelling the action of the play. While I eat up this kind of gender critique for its brazen rebuke of the notions of sex dichotomies and gender roles, it breaks the crucial veil of suspended disbelief which allows a sympathetic response to Emory's plight. Since we are forced to see the characters as what they actually are, it is difficult to also ask of us to see these characters as real people with emotions which we are to empathize with.
In addition, Nanna is unfortunately tasked with much of the pedagogical work in explaining the birds and the bees as it were. Her lecture on gender roles and her outright "fag"-slinging homophobia exposes her more as a literary device than a person. Which again makes the choice to inflict her with terminal cancer, which she is clearly on the brink of being killed by, all the more strange.
Are we meant to empathize with the literary device? Much of the same can be said of Linda the Chicken who I found to be amusing and well-acted, but wholly ancillary and inconsequential where the actual plot is concerned. Linda's perpetual Eyore gloom-and-doom defeatism doesn't inspire much but a frustrated pity. Why she is unable to fly the coop as a giant, singing and dancing fowl is puzzling.
While the critical problems I have with MilkMilkLemonade are pointed, I actually really enjoyed the production. All the actors and creative staff have imbued the play with a certain uppity madness and undeniable humor. The melodramatic scenes where Emory and Elliot "play house" is worthwhile enough to see the play in its entirety. Phelan truly channels Blanche Dubois in Emory's hysterical housewife persona. And lastly, Beckwith's narrator shines brightly in her range going from crazed parasitic twin to awkward storyteller to blaxploitation venomous spider.
MilkMilkLemonade is produced by The Management and Horse Trade theater Group and can be seen at UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between 1st Ave and Ave A) September 10-26, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm.Tickets ($18, $15 students/seniors) are available by calling Smarttix at 212-868-4444 or online at www.horseTRADE.info.